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Write Fast!

coel margaret
By Margaret Coel
Author of sixteen novels in the Wind River mystery series

About sixteen years ago, I was deep into writing my first mystery novel, The Eagle Catcher. Or should it be “deeply”? “Desperately” is probably better. No matter, it was a very serious and slow endeavor, requiring deep/desperate scrutiny of every word as it appeared on my computer monitor. But the novel was coming along, every perfect word a bridge to the next perfect word, I told myself.

Then a Hollywood screenwriter brought his traveling workshop to Denver and I signed up for the weekend because it occurred to me that the one thing a screenwriter ought to be an expert on was writing dialogue. Yes, getting the perfect dialogue in place had been giving me, shall we say, a little trouble.

So I sat through two-and-one-half days of the screenwriting workshop. Along with a few good hints about writing dialogue, this was the advice that turned out to be gold: Write Fast. Because, the screenwriter said, when you write fast, you lose yourself in the writing zone. You are carried away by the story. You live the story, and the story becomes infused with your energy and excitement.

As opposed to stepping out of the zone, stopping the story and allowing the energy to leak out every time you edit what you’ve just written, ponder a grammatical detail, check the dictionary and the thesaurus. Oh, yes, check your e-mail, and as long as you’re now taking a break from the actual writing, get another cup of coffee.

I went home, turned on my computer and went back to writing my novel. I was on chapter ten, and I wrote the rest of the novel straight through. In many sittings, of course, but as I wrote, I no longer stopped to edit or make changes. I just wrote as fast as I could, and I lost myself in the story. It was an exhilarating experience, like turning the pages of a really good book you can’t bear to put down. I was so caught up in the story, I felt sad when I finally had to write, “The End.”

But I had a whole novel. Only then did I start the rewriting and the editing, all that-left brain stuff that forces writers to step back and turn a very critical eye on what we’ve written. But here’s the thing: I found that as I rewrote and rearranged paragraphs and sometimes chapters, sharpened dialogue, polished prose and cut out all the stuff, as Elmore Leonard says, that the reader skips over anyway, the energy and excitement that had come in the writing itself stayed with the story, like a fresh wind blowing through.

Recently I read an obit on Phyllis Whitney that said she had slowed down in the last years of her life. From age 85 on, she wrote only one book a year. Obviously Phyllis Whitney believed in writing fast.

When asked how he had written the screenplay for Rocky in only 18 days, Sylvester Stallone said that was all the time that was necessary. He pointed out that it had taken Gustave Flaubert eighteen years to write Madame Bovary, and “it was a lousy book.”

When The Eagle Catcher was publishedseveral reviewers mentioned that the novel got off to a rather slow start, but once it took off, it was a page-turner. I had a good laugh out of that because I knew exactly when the novel took off. Chapter Eleven, when I had started writing fast.

I’ve been writing fast ever since. In every workshop that I teach, I give my students those two golden words of advice:  Write Fast. It does not mean that you never have to rewrite, or that when you finish the first draft, it will be ready for publication. It will still be what it is—a first draft. But it does mean you will have a complete novel, a story bursting with creative energy, a diamond in the rough waiting to be chiseled, shaped and polished. And that is the time to put on your editor’s cap, not before.

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